The only statewide organization that supports Oklahoma abuse victims is in jeopardy after federal auditors determined former staff and board members misspent more than $500,000 in public money. 

For more than 40 years, the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault has taught advocates how to help victims file protective orders and secure clothing, bedding and other basic needs they were forced to leave behind. It connects the state’s 40 shelters, quickening the search for a safe place to sleep. It lobbies for new laws that protect victims and fights against legislation that endangers them. 

In June of 2021, auditors revealed a pattern of misspending that diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Oklahoma shelters, crisis centers and victims. 

Since then, federal agencies have awarded the coalition more than $2 million. The coalition has all new staff and board members, including a committee that oversees spending. It reignited training and support that waned under the leadership of former director Candida Manion, who spent federal money on vacations instead of victim services, an Oklahoma Watch investigation revealed. 

Two years after the audit was released, federal regulators have yet to decide what, if any, consequences the nonprofit will face. But one thing is certain: if the coalition is forced to repay the misspent money, it will have to dissolve. 

“If we have to look at repaying that money, we obviously don’t have it,” Ann Lowrance said at a May 10 board meeting. Lowrance is a founder of the coalition and rejoined the nonprofit’s board this year. 

The federal Office on Violence Against Women, the nonprofit’s largest funder, has been working with coalition staff and board members to rectify nearly $900,000 that was squandered or mismanaged according to auditors. Receipts, invoices, employee reports and other documents discovered in the disorganized paperwork Manion left behind reduced the unallowed costs to $585,000. But that’s still too much for the nonprofit to repay. 

Most of the misspent money is unaccounted for payroll expenses due to missing timesheets or signatures required under grant rules.

The new total was submitted to the Department of Justice, which could pursue criminal charges against Manion or former board members. It could forgive the full or partial amount. It could suspend or ban the coalition from receiving future grant money.

At a recent board meeting, members worried that the state’s 53 victim service programs would be responsible for the bill, diverting money from Oklahomans in need. When the money was misspent, the board overseeing Manion’s spending was made up of directors from state shelters and victim service programs. Of eight current board members, three are program directors. 

The nonprofit manages $450,000 to $650,000 per year, which comes mostly from federal grants. Annual membership fees from the state’s victim service programs make up only a few thousand dollars of the nonprofit’s budget. 

Oklahoma has the nation’s second-highest rate of women murdered by men, which is twice the national average, according to the Violence Policy Center’s most recent report. A state report found that 118 Oklahomans were killed in domestic violence incidents in 2021, the same year former coalition director Manion was fired for misspending. 

If the nonprofit dissolves, Oklahoma would be the only state in the country without a coalition, according to the national coalition’s website.  

Board members said at the May meeting that they were uncertain when a decision will be made. 

The coalition also is investigating an employee complaint, according to its April meeting agenda.  Former interim director ReJeania Tolliver worked under Manion and took over operations last year while the board searched for a new director. Tolliver applied but was not chosen for the position. She left the nonprofit late last year. 

It is unknown if Tolliver filed a complaint because the board met in executive session, which is not open to the public. Tolliver did not respond to requests for an interview.

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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